Born March 22, 1929, Vienna, Austria
The moon glistened on the river Weser as our long column of Centurion tanks made its way back to our barracks at Luneberg. We were passing through Hamlin, the very same town that gained fame through the stories of the Pied Piper who rid it of a rat infestation many centuries ago. The street was lined with neat houses and manicured lawns to our right and the river to our left. We rumbled along, the tank tracks clattering on the cobbled streets and shattering the still of the evening. Here and there lights flickered on as homeowners drew back curtains to see what the noise was all about. We were not welcome guests there. It was late in the summer of 1952 and the conclusion of a month-long Rhine army maneuver.
My thoughts of the Pied Piper were abruptly interrupted by Dinger Bell, our driver.“Fred, what’s that sign down there on the lawn?” he asked me. “What does it say?” Knowing that I knew some German, he was always asking me to translate something for him. I don’t think it was his thirst for knowledge that led him to ask but more likely the boredom of being stuck in the driver’s compartment.
I took a look. The sign read “Betreten Verboten.” “Oh, it just means keep off the grass,” I answered.
“Thanks,” he laughed.
As I took a further look at the neat oval cast-iron sign with its raised letters, it triggered a memory I had long thought dead. Like an odor or a familiar sound, the sight of something stored in your memory bank has the power to transport you through time to recapture a moment. That was the effect that sign had on me.
I could feel the frustration and rage rising within me. I was again that nine year-old-boy in Vienna returning home from school. As usual, I took the short-cut through the park. What used to be fun—coming home with my classmates—had turned into a daily nightmare. These were the same kids with whom I grew up and with whom I had played all the time. But since the Anschluss they had all been enlisted into various Nazi groups. The poison spread within them. At first they just distanced themselves from me, shunning me; later they turned to name-calling, taunting, pushing, and shoving. On the particular occasion the sign had triggered the memory of, the taunting became more physical. One of the boys ripped my school satchel off my back and threw it on the grass. They all laughed as they ran away.
As I stepped over the small railing surrounding the grassy area to retrieve my satchel, a policeman suddenly materialized, seemingly out of nowhere. He must have been there and witnessed the whole scene and probably enjoyed it, too. Now it was time for him to have some fun. He caught me by the scruff of my neck, dragged me on to the pathway, and gave me a harsh dressing-down.
“Don’t they teach Jew boys how to read?” he said, pointing to the sign. He then took down my name and address. Several days later, my mother received a letter ordering her to come to school. She came to our classroom. As was the custom, students were to stand up when an adult entered the classroom out of respect for our elders. We all stood up as my mother entered.
“Sit down at once,” the teacher barked at us. “You don’t need to stand up for her.” He then went into a lengthy diatribe about the lack of respect Jews seem to have for the beauty of Vienna’s parks.
My mother and I stood in silence, having to listen to one insult after another before we were dismissed. Shortly after that incident, but probably not because of it, I was expelled from the school and transferred to a school for Jews. This is not to be confused with a Jewish school, which generally provides a Jewish education. No, this was a school were Jews were herded together so they would not be able to infect Aryan children. This school was much farther from my home and I had to take a streetcar past several stops to get there. But aside from that, it was a far happier place to be, to sit once again among friends. Our teacher, Professor Schwartzbard, was excellent and wonderful. He had taught at the university level until he was fired because he was Jewish, and now he was relegated to teaching fourthgraders. The university’s loss was our gain. We all liked him.
Frequently a bunch of bullies hung around in front of the school when we left to go home. Since I didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood, I had to make my way home alone. On more than one occasion I was chased. I never slowed down to find out what would happen. I outran them all. I was fast.
Streetcars traveled in the center of the road and motor traffic had to stop when the streetcars came to a halt. By each streetcar stop was a small island for people to stand while waiting for their ride. On one occasion, I was waiting along with others but before I could climb aboard, the door closed and I was left standing on the island. I was small and the driver probably hadn’t noticed me. Traffic began to move. I was so amazed at what was happening that I took a step backward and suddenly I was hit by the fender of an oncoming vehicle and knocked to the ground. The next thing I remember was a man standing over me saying, “Are you hurt?”
“No,” I answered.
“Where are you going?”
“To school,” I said, somewhat hesitantly.
“Jump in, I’ll take you to your school.”
I thanked him and climbed into the passenger seat of the car. It was a brown staff car of the dreaded SA, complete with a small Nazi flag attached to the fender. The man driving the car was an SA officer. Generally, when a car of this type pulled up in front of a school like ours, it spelled trouble. It wouldn’t be a social call. This time, however, you should have seen the look of some of my school friends when I stepped out of the car. It was the talk of the day.
To top it off, I bought an ice cream with my fare money. But all days didn’t always finish off in that satisfying way.
One day when I was being chased by a bunch of bullies I quickly turned onto a side street and ducked into the first building entrance. These buildings were old and had massive doorways that could accommodate a fully laden horse and cart. Two doors swung inward to the side of the entrance. There was just enough room for me to squeeze behind the door. I had often played hide-and-seek and used the shelter of these large doors. I could hear the boys talking as they came to the corner of the street, looking around and wondering where I had disappeared to. I stayed there for what seemed to me an interminably long while. I thought that the beating of my heart would give me away. It sounded like an anvil being pounded at a blacksmith’s shop. Outside the sound of the boys had stopped; they had given up their chase. I continued to stay there a while longer and then with the relief of being safe I felt a sudden warmth around my shorts and legs. I had wet myself. I was so ashamed, I was unable to move. I lingered a while longer and then finally made my way home. Not long after that experience, I left with my sister for England on the Kindertransport.
Twelve years later, I was back in former Nazi territory. Although I was too young to have fought in the war, nevertheless I was there in Germany—not as a victim but as a tank commander with the Royal Scot Greys, the British army of the Rhine occupying forces. The weight and power of the Centurion tank, with all its armament, felt good beneath me. Perhaps there is some justice in the world after all.
©2008, Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this Web site are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
It was always the same. Ushering the Sabbath, my father held the silver kiddush cup in the flat palm of his hand with his thumb resting against the brim of the cup, his head held high, eyes half closed as he recited the blessing over the wine. We all took a sip from the cup. That, together with all the other festive traditional activities, was carried out in proper order. Any bystander would have thought this was just an ordinary Friday night in a Jewish home. So it would have seemed. But I am sure that both our parents’ hearts were breaking. My sister and I were leaving for England on the following Tuesday. This would be our last Sabbath dinner together. Although we thought that we would soon be reunited, our parents knew the difficulties that lay ahead. And indeed, it was the last Sabbath meal we shared.
Preparing for the Sabbath actually began Thursdays, with my mother laying out large round thinly rolled dough that she would later use to make noodles for soup. She busied herself in the kitchen all evening making mouthwatering selections of cakes that would last through the entire week. We never bought any ready-made cakes. Everything was homemade. That particular week she would need more since many friends and relatives would drop in, say their good-byes, and wish us well on our journey. Friday morning I would watch, as I had watched so many times in the past, as she braided the dough to make the challot and then basted them with egg yolks and lightly sprinkled poppy seeds on them before placing them in the oven. The aromas from the baking and the food preparation permeated our home. A rare and wonderful smell that, even now, can whisk me back in time on the rare occasion when something comes close to it. This was the routine in our home, and very likely in many other Jewish homes in Vienna.
My father was crippled as a result of his service in the Austrian army in World War I. I never really knew what his exact diagnosis was, but he could only get around with the aid of two walking canes. However, when he was seated, there was nothing that he could not do. He had gifted hands that could do so many things and an artistic flair that enabled him to create beautiful drawings and teach others how to use proportions and take perspectives into account. Although he never trained to be a tailor, he handled the sewing machine like a professional, making all kinds of clothes for us and even a new suit for me. He could turn his hands to all sorts of activities, resoling shoes, repairing electrical apparatuses that had ceased to function, and even tinkering with the radio when it went on the blink and somehow managing to get it functioning again. He was also an amateur photographer, doing his own developing and printing. We never went to a photography studio; as a result, I only have small snapshots, which he had made himself. As a little boy I used to watch his every move, picking up many cues that I would store away for use at some future day. He never complained about his handicap. I learned so much from him, but, above all, he taught me how to live with adversity and make the most of it.
Years later, as I developed my own hobbies like rebuilding automobile engines or building an addition to our home, friends used to ask, “Where did you learn to do that?” I would simply shrug my shoulders, but somewhere in the back of my mind was my father telling me “Go ahead, you can do it.” Perhaps it sounds far-fetched, but he taught me so much without leaving his chair.
On the Tuesday of my sister’s and my departure for England, we all went downstairs to the backyard where my father set up the tripod and camera, placed a black cloth over his head, and focused the camera on us to take our picture. He selected the delayed shutter feature and joined us in the photograph. Our mother was taking us to the West Bahnhof, the railroad station for trains heading west. As we were about to leave, my father said to me, “Go forward and don’t look back.” I was never quite sure of what he meant by that statement, but I believe it to have been more philosophical in nature than in the literal manner a small child would take it. However, as the three of us proceeded along the sidewalk but were still a short distance from our home, I did stop and turn around to look back, and just as I expected my father was at the bay window with tears in his eyes, forcing a smile, watching us walk out of his life.
When the photograph had been developed, a copy was sent to us in England. It captured all of our feelings. It is the saddest picture I have ever seen; nevertheless, it is a treasured memento of that day. On one of the negatives my father had written Der Abschied. The farewell.
At the train station the platform was crowded with parents coming to see their children off on the Kindertransport and to a new life in England and hoping they would not forget their old lives and those who loved them. It was a special train just for our group, probably a couple of hundred kids, from very little ones, scarcely more than toddlers, up to 17-year-olds.
We stood at an open window holding hands with our mother. She too was fighting back tears, trying to tell us that it would be just for a short while. I don’t think she believed her own words, but what else could she say. We were bravely looking at each other, not knowing what to say, when suddenly my classroom teacher, Professor Schwartzbard, appeared in front of us. He knew I was leaving on the Kindertransport on that day and apparently had managed to have his young son accepted too. He was holding his five-year-old son like a piece of luggage under his arm and then he passed him through the open window and asked if his son could sit with us and might I keep an eye out for him until we reach London? In London someone would come to pick him up. Naturally I agreed and immediately I felt grown up, with a new-found responsibility dropped in my lap. A whistle blew and we kissed and hugged through the open window and were reluctant to let go as the train began to pull away. My mother tried running along with the train, holding on to our hands, but not for long. Soon her lonely figure diminished as the train snaked its way out of the station.
All our worldly belongings were packed into two large rucksacks, stuffed to the brim with clothing plus lots of sweets and chocolates that friends and relatives had given us. My parents sent along a very nice box of chocolates for the Griggs family, who had agreed to take us into their home. We were not permitted to bring along any items of value, such as jewelry or money. I took the chance and hid my wristwatch in my pocket, the present my parents had given me on my tenth birthday. However, small snapshots were not considered of value and my sister and I brought several family photos with us. Through the years their value to me has increased enormously since they represent the only visual recollection I have of my former life with my parents.
With this writing I had not intended to write about our time in England but instead to focus on just two dates that punctuated my life. The first, a rather sad day, yet one marked with hope and promise, the 20th of June 1939 when my sister and I left Vienna for England, and the second date, the 24th of June 1958, the happy event of my wedding to Josiane Aizenberg aboard the SS Zion, an Israeli passenger liner, while it was docked in New York harbor. My sister had come from Israel to be with us on our special day. She had a very special gift for me, one that she had been saving for such an occasion. It was my father’s kiddush cup, the same cup I had seen on so many Friday nights. It came as an utter surprise to me. I had no idea she possessed it.
Apparently, my father took an enormous risk and stuffed the cup in among my sister’s clothing, without telling her but knowing she would know what to do with it and when the moment was right to pass it on to me. That moment had come, my wedding. But more important, my father, in parting with his kiddush cup, which he had most likely received at some special occasion, must have been acutely aware of the severity of his and my mother’s situation and the doubtfulness of their survival. It is my most prized possession. Every Friday evening, as my family ushers in the Sabbath, the cup graces our table. Perhaps I don’t hold it in the same manner as my father did, but I recite the same blessing over the wine and gratefully look around at my family and think how fortunate I am to have had such wonderful parents.
©2011, Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this Web site are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.